Understanding America’s Electoral College

WASHINGTON, DC – Anyone watching the United States’ presidential race needs to understand that national opinion polls do not provide an accurate picture of how the election might turn out. Thanks to America’s Electoral College, it’s not who wins the most votes nationwide that matters in the end, but who wins in which states.

Each state is awarded a certain number of votes in the Electoral College, depending on the size of its population. The candidate who crosses the threshold of 270 electoral votes wins the presidency.

In almost every state, a candidate who wins 50.1% of the popular vote is awarded 100% of its electoral votes. (Only Maine and Nebraska don’t follow the winner-take-all rule; they divide the Electoral College vote by congressional district.) As a result, the votes of millions of people who cast their ballot end up not counting. If you’re a Republican in New York or California, which are dominated by the Democrats, or a Democrat in Wyoming or Mississippi, which are reliably Republican, you can forget about your vote for president mattering.

One peculiar result of this peculiar system is that a candidate can win a majority of the national popular vote but lose in the Electoral College, by losing narrowly in populous states and winning in some smaller states. It doesn’t happen often, but whenever it does, the US goes through a paroxysm of hand-wringing over this seemingly undemocratic mechanism. In the most recent case, Al Gore won a majority of the popular vote in 2000, but George W. Bush won the presidency.